For forty hours a week for thirty-six years now, Augustin Carmichael had stood in front of a conveyor belt and looked for defective potato chips. By the time they rolled past him, they had already been transformed completely from their original state. Tens of thousands of pounds of potatoes rolled through machinery that carefully rubbed away the dirty peels, rinsed the potatoes, sorted and sliced them, fried them in hot oil and then spat them out onto conveyor belts for inspection. For thirty-six years now, Augustin had watched crisp, gold discuses roll past him and picked out any burned ones, clumped together ones or severely discolored ones. He always wore pressed black slacks and a white short-sleeved shirt, over which he wore a company-issue apron. His mouth was always covered by a plastic shield and there was always a hairnet on his hair (which had grown sparser and receded over the years).
Augustin had never been promoted, though he had received pay raises at a predictable rate. He was always quiet and resolute and kept to himself at work. He was one of the only employees whose personal file was as empty and blank as a freshly sliced potato. There were no letters of commendation, no complaints, no motions to promote or fire him, no incident reports, no safety violations, no health code violations, no employee of the month awards, no record of any votes cast by him at any employee meetings (or even any record of him attending employee meetings). His time clock record was immaculate - until 1995, he had signed himself in and out on paper, always in the same controlled handwriting that looked like he wrote in all capital letters. If one was to survey down the columns and rows of sign in and out dates, one would see that Augustinīs handwriting had hardly changed, even though time had crabbed his hand somewhat. After the company embraced technological advances, he had managed to punch in and out at the exact scheduled time by scanning his employee IDīs barcode at the electronic check-in station. A spreadsheet of punches read like a script error - the same time in and out, but with changing dates, sprawling onwards for dozens of pages.
Today, once again, he stood at his work station and stared at the masses of potato chips throttling past him. One of his hands remained in his pocket while the other sat perched on the railing adjacent to the conveyor belt, ready to snatch out defects.
His eyes registered a large clump of folded over slices that had fried into a ball the size of a kiwi; they had browned beyond the preferred golden tone of potato chips and instead looked burnt and dry. Augustin reached out and grasped the defective clump of potato chips.
In that one forward motion, a series of events set into place. It had been a hot day and Augustin had opened the top button of his dress shirt, allowing it to gape slightly at the neck. No longer constrained by fabric, a locket slid forward. Its chain was no longer tucked casually behind his shirt and, weighted down by the locket, swung outward like a clockīs pendulum. The locket clanked against the metal side rail of the conveyor belt and dipped underneath it. Still powered by its own momentum, it swung up again and curved over the railing and hung there.
In less than a second, Augustin ended up tethered to the rail of the conveyor belt. His hands shot forward awkwardly as he began to walk rapidly alongside the conveyor. His fingers fumbled with the railing, trying to whip the locket back over and then under the rail. Unfortunately, the thin chain looped across the hinge of the locket and since he was nearly doubled over the conveyor belt, he could not lift his head up far enough to see it through the short-distance lens of his bifocals. Now Augustin began to sharply yank at the railing. He was remarkably unwilling to undo the clasp of the locket at the nape of his neck. His coworkers could now hear his panicked whimper.
"Rip that thing off your neck!" A brash, middle-aged man yelled at him from the other side of the conveyor.
"Somebody hit the panic button! Stop the conveyor!" A matronly older woman exclaimed from the balcony area above them, where management and supervisors would gather.
"No! No! Donīt!" Augustin cried out. He knew that if the panic button were pressed, the railings of the conveyor would collapse and lock into a stationary braking system under the conveyor that would simply stop the belt from moving any further. That would trip an override in the computer system that monitored the conveyor belt, and it would sense the obstruction and shut down the entire production line. What Augustin feared was the initial collapse of the railings, which would free-fall about a foot before they clicked into place in the braking system. It would snap the locket off of his neck and throw it down into the open, dark crevasse underneath the conveyor where theyīd throw defects and waste into. Heīd never find the locket again.
People began to scream. One particularly fragile woman began to cry.
"Youīre going to get killed!"
"Did anybody hit the panic button?"
"Is he crazy?"
"Itīs just a freaking necklace!"
Augustin could see the red alarms on the walls glitter to life. A bell rang and he watched, almost in slow motion, as the railing released from the conveyor and dropped downward. The locketīs chain grew impossibly taut, and it felt like the longest split second in eternity before it split and then sank, locket and all, into the darkness beneath the belt.
Drops of blood beaded up on the nape of Augustinīs neck where it had been cut by the sudden friction of the chain. It rolled down and absorbed into his white collars starched, crescent-like perfection. He leaned back off of the conveyor belt. His fingertips traced the hollow in his thin neck, touched the ruffled, inelastic skin suspended below his chin. His hands shook and then pressed into his eye sockets, hiding back the salty burn of tears.
He felt a hand touch his shoulder awkwardly. His direct supervisorīs voice seemed to come from miles away, "I need you to come with me to fill out an incident report. Iīm sorry for the scare you went through, Augustin. Youīre not in any sort of trouble, Iīm more worried about you. Maybe... maybe take a day off, huh?"
Augustin turned on his heels, suddenly standing straight and proud, his stomach sucked in and his gait rigid and military-like. He looked his supervisor in the eye and said, " Yes, sir." And then, just as quickly, his shoulders sank in a defeated manner and he became tired and grief-stricken. Without another word, he left the production line floor, left his under-the-radar work record and his anonymity at work. Left some glass-sharp baggage that had for decades clawed away at his insides, kept him awake with grief and torment, kept him clinging to desperate hopes that became more like delusional daydreams as the years had crawled by. For thirty-four years, he had never let go of that locket; he had never betrayed the place he could always be found at. Never wanted to be promoted or moved to another position on the floor, for he felt he had to wait quite literally in the same six square foot area of the production line. Wait for her to come back like she said she would, like she promised in all her letters.
He had listened to her on the phone, listened to her whisper the address he worked at over and over again to confirm that she knew where it was. Listened to her laugh, her infectious delicious laugh, which he could hear in the hum of the factory machinery, hear hidden in the clatter of heels across the supervisory balconies. I know where it is, itīs off of Bakerīs street, where the old flour mill used to be, across the street from the burger joint. I know where it is, Aug, relax. Iīll be back. They say nurses fare pretty well, I donīt think thereīs any danger. Itīs only for a short while anyway. They desperately need flight nurses, I canīt leave the country hanging. Itīs only for a short while. Iīm mailing you my locket, and my picture. Itīs the Army issue uniform, can you believe it? Youīd be so proud. The boys are fighting so hard. I wouldnīt feel bad about your eyes, about the bum leg. You donīt have to serve in īNam to get my heart. I would rather you didnīt, Iīd rather you be safe. Donīt worry, Iīll write you any time I have paper and pen to hold, I swear it. Wait for me. Please, wait for me, please. Please. Wait. Please.
That sharp, painful yank that ripped the chain from his neck, that clatter of metal against metal as the locket swung forever out of his reach and then collapsed into a waste void underneath the conveyor belt. It forever echoed in his ears like the dum-dum clatter of mortar grounds.